Many early 20th century American socialists like Eugene Debs and Henry Demarest Lloyd got started in the late 19th century Populist movement. They recognized that socialism was a natural outgrowth of the demands made by left-wing populists.
Since the Great Recession in 2008, populism has moved back to the forefront of political discourse in the United States and other countries around the world. Far too often there is enormous confusion regarding what populism really is and whether it more closely aligns with left-wing or right-wing movements. That debate has sometimes rendered the term confounding at best and meaningless at worst. Nonetheless, while a resurgent socialism is still nascent in the United States but “populism” has exploded, it would be wise for socialists to claim the word “populism” by talking more actively about the legacy of the 19th century Populists. The radical wing of the Populists that included figures such as Eugene V. Debs and Henry Demarest Lloyd understood that when the agrarian Populist movement of the 1890s died, socialism was the logical next step. They recognized that only socialism’s insistence on democracy in every aspect of Americans’ lives, including in the workplace, was truly compatible with the radical demands of the Populists who aimed to embolden common people during the late 19th century.
While “socialism” is often depicted by its enemies as foreign or un-American, “populism” is more often characterized as an American phenomenon. That portrayal of socialism as un-American is of course wrong. Historian Eric Foner seized on this idea when he wrote an open letter to Bernie Sanders during the 2016 campaign urging him to spend less time comparing his social democratic agenda to Scandinavian countries and more time pulling from the rich history of American leftism when describing his platform. American socialists would do themselves a favor by digging into that rich history themselves, and there are few more useful historical moments to analyze for the radical left today than the left-wing movements of the Gilded Age more than a century ago.
Foner himself actually highlighted the importance of the 19th century Populists as part of the American radical tradition in his open letter to Bernie Sanders. “You should mention the People’s Party, or Populists, and their Omaha platform of 1892, which describes a nation not unlike our own, with inequality rife and a political system in need of change, where ‘corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench…. [and] the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few.’” He also emphasized the uniquely important role that Eugene Debs played in the early 20th century for the far left, when he ran for president five times, organized industrial workers, and went to jail for almost three years because of his opposition to World War I. “Debs spoke the language of what he called ‘political equality and economic freedom.’ But equally important, as Debs emphasized, socialism is as much a moral idea as an economic one—the conviction that vast inequalities of wealth, power, and opportunity are simply wrong and that ordinary people, using political power, can produce far-reaching change. It was Debs’s moral fervor as much as his specific program that made him beloved by millions of Americans.”
That moral fervor was at the heart of both 19th century Populism and also early 20th century socialism in the United States, and a serious analysis of radical left-wing politics during that era needs to understand the ties that bound those two movements together. There were many American socialists in the early 20th century, Eugene Debs included, who were not deeply familiar with Marxist texts and theory. But an abiding concern with social and economic inequality during the Gilded Age was a factor that animated far left movements in the United States and enabled the transition that many made from Populism to socialism – or the allegiance that some had to both movements concurrently. Understanding how and why many shared those allegiances around the turn of the 20th century would be useful for contemporary socialists as they ponder how to expand their ranks during an era referred to by some historians, including Eric Foner, as a second Gilded Age.
The Populist movement fizzled when it hitched its political hopes to the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who suffered a calamitous defeat in the 1896 election. But Populist demands quickly became part of mainstream American political discourse and influenced the Progressives of the early 20th century. Their political legacy culminated in some of the reforms of the New Deal in the 1930s. It should not be forgotten that the Populists of the late 19th century contributed to the rise of the golden years of the socialist movement in the United States in the early 20th century when socialists won control of Milwaukee municipal government and enormous strikes swept from garment factories in New York City to the mines of Colorado. Several key 20th century socialists got their start in the People’s Party of the 1890s. The patron saint of American socialism, Eugene Debs, was one such figure. Henry Demarest Lloyd was Debs’ close friend, a muckraker who published exposés targeting John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Corporation, and a political activist who was deeply involved in the People’s Party before turning to socialism.
Before exploring the stories of Debs’ and Lloyd’s transitions to socialism, there should be an explanation regarding language in this essay. The historian Charles Postel who studies Populism provides clear definitions that are useful to address here. In regards to whether populism should be associated with the right or the left, Postel has said, “The historical record tells us that the claims about U.S. Populism representing an unstable ideology that shifted from left to right are ahistorical, illogical fallacies.” He has described the persistent relevance of populism this way: “The political thought that motivated the original Populists has proven to be at least as constant as any other school of political ideas. In its proposals for making a more just and equitable society and under a variety of names—antimonopolist, farmer-labor, populist, democratic socialist, nonpartisan, progressive—populism has remained a steady, deep, and broad stream in American political thought.” This definition of populism, firmly left-wing and democratic in nature and rooted in the historical record of late 19th century farmer-labor Populism, is the definition that will be used in this piece. Popular movements or anti-elite sentiments that exist outside this definition will be referred to as “anti-establishment.”
The populist resurgence today may be scattershot and disorganized, but that should be an opportunity for American socialists to evoke the legacy of the 19th century Populists and to hope that organizing populists is possible. Bernie Sanders’ shockingly popular but ultimately unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 2016 and 2020 gave voice to millions of people dissatisfied with establishment politics and corporate hegemony. It would be foolish for socialists to assume that all of Sanders’s supporters are latent socialists-in-waiting, but the enthusiasm surrounding his campaigns reveals a broad populist dissatisfaction with the economic status quo—a sentiment that must be cultivated by socialists if they hope to expand their ranks.
Donald Trump’s agenda is not representative of true populism, but his success demonstrated the powerful undercurrents of anti-establishment energy that exist in even more politically developed forms on the right. His support in the 2020 election, when he received more than 74 million votes, demonstrates that his base runs much deeper than far right ideologues on the fringes of political discourse. As our crises in the neoliberal era only expand and deepen, possibilities for capturing anti-establishment energy will be there for those on the far left and the far right if they make the right appeals. One of the largest modern fallacies in mainstream political circles is that people’s political viewpoints are static. On the contrary, the history of Populists’ transitions to socialism at the turn of the 20th century reveals that political views are indeed fluid and that today’s capitalist reformer may be tomorrow’s socialist. Studying this history can provide modern socialists with insights into which appeals may help to broaden the movement.
Debs and Lloyd — Populists
Eugene V. Debs’s unwavering commitment to American workers is still a guiding light for socialists in the 21st century. But before Debs became a socialist, he was a Populist. His temporary political allegiance to Populism is seldom discussed today, which is understandable—it may seem contrary to the mythology of the revolutionary socialist Debs to envision his involvement with a capitalist reform party like the People’s Party. Yet it is instructive to view Deb’s Populist sympathies not as a misguided or counterproductive detour, but as an important step on his personal pathway to socialism.
Debs first gained national notoriety for his role in helping to form the American Railway Union (ARU) and for his involvement with the monumental Pullman Strike in 1894. That partially explains why Debs was slow to endorse the mostly agrarian People’s Party in the early 1890s and ultimately why he turned down the nomination for President of the United States by the People’s Party in 1896. But American workers in the late 19th century increasingly believed that the Republicans and Democrats would not help them and the People’s Party emerged as a successful third party alternative. “Many working men were persuaded that their sole hope for salvation lay in support of the Populists. Eugene Debs held this view. In his speech to the Firemen’s convention, he had said: ‘You say labor organizations do not discuss politics. I would have labor to unify at the polls and vote for an independent people’s party” (Ginger 162). For Debs in the 1894 midterm elections, that party was the People’s Party created by the agrarian Populists.
Farmers in the late 19th century made up a majority of the American population but had seen their fortunes decline precipitously. Over-cultivation of the land and foreign competition led to depreciation in crop prices. The government’s continued adherence to the gold standard only contributed to farmers’ financial woes. Because of declining crop values and the crushing debt they took on to maintain their farms, farmers yearned for inflationary monetary policy that would make it easier for them to pay their debts and called upon the government to open new pathways for them to access credit.
As a labor organizer, Eugene Debs must have been impressed by the Populists’ ability to organize. Charles Postel explained in his 2007 book, The Populist Vision, that while the Populists hated Gilded Age corporations, they were inspired by those trusts and monopolies to pool their own resources together by creating buying and selling cooperatives. The Farmers’ Alliance supported such cooperatives and eventually paved the way for the creation of the National Grange which started lobbying politicians on behalf of agrarian interests. In 1892 they created a political party called the People’s Party and their platform called for a transformation of the American economic and political systems.
Beyond simply proposing that the United States get off the gold standard and promoting the free coinage of silver, the Populists called for a “sub-treasury plan” creating government-run warehouses which would store farmers’ crops until they were ready to sell them at optimal market prices. In the meantime, farmers could acquire low-interest loans of up to 80% of the value of their crops from the federal government. Populists also called for democratic political reforms including the direct election of senators and the referendum, recall, and initiative. They demanded the implementation of a graduated income tax. Perhaps most audaciously, they advocated for government ownership of the railroads as well as telephone and telegraph companies. Along the way, the Populists amassed an unprecedented amount of support from women, 250,000 of whom joined the Farmers’ Alliance by 1890. The Alliance offered women the same membership rights as men and Populists openly advocated for women’s suffrage nationally.
Illinois had been the most successful state in creating a labor-Populist alliance and Debs and his friend from Illinois, Henry Demarest Lloyd, threw themselves into uniting organized labor and the Populists at the national level. Lloyd was a millionaire journalist from Winnetka, Illinois just north of Chicago who had been the financial editor and an editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune until 1885. He became a political activist who supported the Haymarket anarchists in 1886 and then turned his attention to muckraking journalism. The muckrakers of the Gilded Age (people like Lloyd, Jacob Riis, Ida Tarbell, and Upton Sinclair) were instrumental in alerting the public to the dishonest business tactics used by the robber barons and their almost complete control over the American political system. Lloyd’s book Wealth Against Commonwealth chronicled the unscrupulous tactics employed by Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Corporation and became a sensation when it was published in 1894.
In order to develop a national labor-Populist alliance, Debs and Lloyd engaged in conversations with the most powerful labor leader in the United States, Samuel Gompers. Gompers was the head of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which had gained enormous popularity after the Haymarket Affair in 1886. The AFL had spent years organizing workers on a craft union basis and pursuing business unionism, strategies that Debs would spend much of his life working against. Gompers rejected the overtures of the People’s Party on the grounds that the labor militancy they advocated for would be counterproductive. Gompers’ disastrous assessment led the AFL to endorse the anti-labor Republican Party during the 1894 midterms. Republicans won control of Congress and the Populists saw their delegation in Congress dip from 14 to 10. Henry Demarest Lloyd, who himself had run for Congress from Illinois as a member of the People’s Party, lost his election. The inability of the Populists to create a national alliance with organized labor would be part of their undoing again in 1896 when they supported the Democrats’ presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan did not agree to many of the Populists’ most radical demands, but he centered their call for the free coinage of silver in his campaign. Bryan did well in the South and West, but lost handily to the Republican, William McKinley, who won the plentiful electoral votes of the Midwest and Northeast where a critical mass of industrial workers failed to support Populism.
Before the Populists nominated William Jennings Bryan as the nominee for the People’s Party in 1896, they tried to enlist Debs as their standard bearer. Debs did not attend the People’s Party nominating convention in St. Louis, so the leader of the most radical faction of the party at the convention was Henry Demarest Lloyd. Debs turned down the nomination, much to the dismay of Lloyd, partly because he wanted to focus on labor organizing, and partly because as Ginger describes, “Debs’ mind was unsettled; his thinking was changing rapidly on basic questions of philosophy and strategy. He hesitated to identify himself completely with a capitalist reform party like the Populists.” (Ginger 189) Debs was becoming a socialist.
Debs and Lloyd — Socialists
Although he campaigned for Bryan in 1896 and endorsed the free silver issue, Debs came to see the Populists’ fusion with the Democrats as an unacceptable compromise with the middle-class capitalists in the movement (Kipnis 50). These concerns marked a crucial moment in Debs’s transition to socialism. Even during his socialist heyday, he never deeply studied Marxist theory, but he was an avid reader of Victor Hugo and Thomas Paine which helped him speak in ways that resonated with working-class people. The values that Debs stood for were being championed by the Populists in the 1890s, but the increasingly bleak political reality that faced the People’s Party coupled with Debs’ experience during the Pullman Strike led him to fully embrace socialism for the first time in his life. Reflecting on the Pullman struggle, Debs wrote, “I was to be baptized in socialism in the roar of conflict…in the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed…This was my first practical struggle in socialism.” (Ginger 192). In 1897, Debs officially came out for socialism, “The issue is socialism versus capitalism. I am for socialism because I am for humanity…The time has come to regenerate society–we are on the eve of a universal change” (Ginger 193).
Part of what radicalized Debs were the visits he received from friends when he was in prison in Woodstock, Illinois in 1895 for his role in the Pullman Strike. Victor Berger, the father of Milwaukee socialism, gave Debs his first copy of Marx’s Capital in prison. One of his visitors was Thomas J. Morgan, the man who would also help to radicalize their mutual friend Henry Demarest Lloyd. Thomas Morgan was one of Chicago’s leading labor activists and socialists dating back to the 1870s. He was initially involved in organized labor through his own work as a machinist and he eventually became the president of the Machinist Union of Chicago. He was involved with the Socialist Labor Party, Social Democratic Party, and eventually the Socialist Party of America throughout his life and a frequent candidate for office on behalf of those parties. He also edited and published The Provoker, a socialist weekly. In short, Thomas Morgan was deeply involved in socialism and someone who tried to get his left-leaning friends to take the leap and join the movement.
Henry Demarest Lloyd was one such friend. Lloyd was disillusioned with the People’s Party after William Jennings Bryan’s failed presidential run in 1896. Lloyd had “sought to transform the Populist revolt from a narrow agrarian protest movement into an effective challenge to the prevailing economic and political system,” said Robert Stow, editor for the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Morgan viewed Lloyd as a fellow traveler within the Chicago scene of labor and political radicals. He wrote a letter to Lloyd in 1901 urging him to attend the Indianapolis convention held by the Social Democratic Party, headed by Eugene Debs at the time.
Lloyd was less certain about his political identity than Debs was. He once jokingly described himself as a “socialist-anarchist-communist-individualist-collectivist-cooperative-aristocratic-democrat.” The radical journalist Harvey O’Connor described Lloyd’s ideological identity this way:
“Although a self-proclaimed socialist and an intimate friend of Eugene Debs, Victor Berger, and other leading socialists, Lloyd never joined the Socialist Party. That he intended to is attested by a manuscript, ‘Why I Join the Socialists,’ written June 4, 1903, a few months before his untimely death at the age of 56. Summoned to lead the campaign for municipal ownership of the street railways, he caught cold on a draughty platform at a meeting called by the Chicago Federation of Labor, and developed pneumonia. His manuscript lay unfinished on his desk, his application for membership unsigned. Lloyd was no Marxist. His zeal streamed down from the Hebrew prophets, from the undiluted precepts of Jesus, from the Enlightenment and its American apostles, Jefferson and Emerson, and from an infinite faith in the innate power of and possibilities of human beings. Son of a minister, he had rebelled against formalized Christianity and had found divinity among his fellow men.”
While he may not have been a Marxist, Lloyd’s anti-capitalist ethos was born out of a revulsion at the robber barons of the Gilded Age and horror at the violence of the Haymarket Affair in 1886. As a lawyer and prominent journalist, Lloyd recognized his ability to help the accused Haymarket anarchists and succeeded at getting two of the anarchists’ sentences commuted. Lloyd’s biggest ideological partner during the struggles of the late 19th century was Eugene Debs. As O’Connor put it, “Of such different origin and circumstance, they were bound in a common glow, and ecstatic faith in humanity that somehow, in the world of the cobalt bomb, now seems quaint and old-fashioned. In both was the fire that kindled men and bound them in high enterprise, both were inspired prophets of a new order.”
When it came to big business, Lloyd, like Debs, was clearly a radical in his day. “I cannot think of any remedial measure,” he wrote, “to which I would attach the slightest importance except agitation to awaken the public to the necessity of themselves becoming the owners of every monopoly.” Near the end of his life, Lloyd began referring to himself as a socialist and a democrat. He believed the two words were synonymous.
Charles Postel has written about Lloyd’s resonance today due to his resemblance to America’s favorite 21st century socialist, Bernie Sanders. Sanders shares Lloyd’s commitment to social justice, and Lloyd’s fears regarding concentrated economic power in the hands of monopolies echo Sanders’s worries about concentrated economic power in the 21st century. Lloyd’s work during the Gilded Age, including his principled stance in support of the Haymarket anarchists, has enduring meaning as the United States continues to grapple with obscene inequality and corporate dominance. His involvement with the Populist movement and his ideological identification with socialism also makes him an important case when analyzing potential bridges between these two currents.
Oklahoma’s Transition from Populism to Socialism
Eugene Debs and Henry Demarest Lloyd, on the radical fringe of the Populist movement to begin with, clearly saw the socialist movement as the logical next step after the People’s Party suffered defeat. But were they the only ones? While Debs and Lloyd were important figures within the Populist story, they were hardly representative of the Populist movement as a whole. Debs was primarily preoccupied with organizing industrial workers before he arrived at Populism, and Lloyd was a millionaire lawyer and journalist. These are not the sorts of people one first thinks of when the agrarian Populists are discussed. But the allure of socialism proved much more widespread than just for Debs and Lloyd.
Oklahoma became one of the centers of socialist activity in the United States in the early 20th century. Socialists owe at least part of their success in Oklahoma to the legacy of the Populists. In the 1890s, the People’s Party became the main alternative to the Republican Party in Oklahoma, temporarily supplanting the Democratic Party. People’s Party candidates in Oklahoma had success on their own terms, but there were also fusions with the Democratic Party in the state that led to the creation of a Free Silver Party in 1896. When the People’s Party suffered defeat, third party energy in Oklahoma shifted to socialism. The most widely read socialist periodical in the United States in the early 20th century was Appeal to Reason, and more copies of the journal were sold in Oklahoma than any other state. Appeal to Reason was created in 1895 in Kansas and started as a newspaper that supported the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party before shifting its allegiance to the Socialist Party of America upon its creation in 1901.
When he ran for President in 1912, Eugene Debs won his second highest percentage of the vote in Oklahoma with more than 16% (Nevada was first). More than 175 socialists were elected to local and county offices in Oklahoma in 1914, including six to the state legislature. In 1915, there were more registered Socialist Party members in Oklahoma than there were in New York which had seven times Oklahoma’s population and an extensive history of leftist politics. Eric Blanc has discussed the impact of the Populist legacy on the new socialist movement in Oklahoma, “More than elsewhere in the country, Oklahoma’s socialists found creative ways to blend socialism with preexisting cultural norms and political traditions. One important example of this was the SP’s focus on organizing encampments, a practice pioneered by evangelicals and Populists. Thousands of farmers would travel by covered wagon for a week of singing, socializing, discussing, and socialist education.” Oklahoma radicals had agrarian roots and did not find that fact to be at odds with their version of socialism, even though orthodox Marxists were skeptical. The Oklahoma Historical Society explains:
“Building on the expertise its members inherited from past agrarian movements (principally the Farmers’ Alliance and the Farmers’ Union), Oklahoma socialists directly challenged the inequities of early-twentieth-century commercial agriculture. Unlike their counterparts in the national Socialist Party, who thought of farmers as members of the petite bourgeoisie and therefore ineligible for party membership, Oklahoma socialists argued forcefully that farmers who worked the land were legitimate members of the working class. Indeed, Sooner socialists developed a pathbreaking “Farmers’ Programme” that called for restoring land to working farmers. In addition, Socialist Party speakers relentlessly attacked tenancy, the crop lien system, and usury, the principal components of the agricultural crisis for small farmers.”
Karl Marx was clear that he did not believe the peasantry possessed revolutionary potential and that any hope for a communist revolution would come from the industrial proletariat. The story of America’s 19th century Populists and the transition that many in their ranks made to socialism, as well as other international examples of agrarian radicalism, at least complicate those assumptions. Countless authors wading into Marxist debates during the 20th century and beyond have struggled with questions regarding farmers’ class identity, their orientation to capitalism, and their political potential. In Anton Jager’s 2019 piece from Jacobin called “From Populism to Socialism and Back,” he highlighted some of the disagreements that populists and socialists have had and concluded that their mutual hatred for corporate hegemony should lead to a modern alliance nonetheless. He also pointed out that Russia’s successful communist revolution owed significantly to an alliance between urban laborers and the peasantry, while there was no such alliance in failed revolutions in France in 1848 and Germany in 1918-19.
The agrarian Populist tradition was not the only force responsible for the rise of radical left-wing politics in western states such as Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nevada in the early 20th century. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) made major inroads with mine workers throughout much of the country including the West in this period, and confrontations between mine workers and their employers were some of the bloodiest conflicts of the early 20th century. Still, the agrarian Populist movement in the Plains and western United States that had taken the country by storm in the 1890s did not just disappear overnight. “Although the constituencies of the Populist Party and the Socialist Party were somewhat different, Populist ideas remained very much alive,” said sociologist Robert Tuttle. “The immediate demands of the Socialists and the Progressives were rooted in the Populist tradition. The final remnants of the Populist Party were gone, but many of their ideas remained.” The evidence is clear that there were scores of disillusioned Populists in America’s heartland that eventually turned their attention to socialism.
Lessons for Today’s Socialists
As an integral part of the story of American radicalism at the turn of the 20th century, the Populists can provide us with some information about how to grow an American brand of socialism that takes its cues from our own complicated history. The Populists were a capitalist reform movement, but at their most radical (when they fought for public ownership of the railroad and communications industries, for example) seeds of a socialist message could be found in their agenda. In particular, the radical inclusion of women as equal partners and prominent leaders of the movement along with the intriguing forms of cooperation that Populist farmers employed should serve as inspiration. Modern socialists should commit to the difficult task of harvesting the seeds of socialism by converting populists to socialism in our contemporary context.
Any serious left-wing movement must reckon with the inherent anti-democratic qualities of the U.S. Constitution. The Populists’ calls to democratize the American political system were centered prominently in their movement and these plans were seized on and expanded by the Socialist Party in the early 20th century. The way in which Populists forcefully pushed for forms of economic democracy and political democracy should be mirrored by modern socialists. The challenge of reconceptualizing economic and political democracy and linking those currents together is at the heart of the 21st century socialist project.
The story of the 19th century Populists should teach modern socialists that electoralism is one of the tools that can grow the movement. The Populists’ failed bid to win the presidency by merging with the Democratic Party should give pause to any socialist who has visions of co-opting the Democratic Party today. Radical Populists were incapable of stopping the moderate capitalists in their midst from embracing fusion and William Jennings Bryan, but the circumstances of the 1896 election should not deter modern socialists from involving themselves in electoral politics. The People’s Party was short-lived, but was a force in politics throughout the southern and western United States in the early 1890s. By running candidates for office, the Populists laid the groundwork for future Progressive reforms and future socialist organizing.
It must be noted here that part of the Populists’ failure to supplant the Democratic Party is owed to their poor track record regarding race. A message of working-class solidarity that transcends racial lines was likely no match for white southern racism, but the Populists’ ambivalence or sometimes outright hostility toward racial equality doomed the campaign to replace the Democratic Party in the South from the start. Obviously, modern efforts to grow socialism must foreground anti-racism along with anti-capitalism.
Can there ever be a left-wing populist movement again that counts rural America as part of its base? A message that emphasizes moral outrage at grotesque inequality and unrelenting corporate power has the potential to resonate with the broadly defined working class regardless of geographic location as we saw with the Populists. In Nick Bowlin’s recent essay in The Drift Magazine entitled, “Joke’s on Them: The Democratic Party Meets Rural America,” he argues that the Left’s attempts to organize rural Americans need to be more specific and tailored to 21st century material realities. He charts developments in rural America during the 20th century that led to the consolidation of farms, the decimation of small-scale farming, and the rise of what he calls the “rural gentry.” Local elites in rural areas have enormous political clout and have a vested interest in conservative politics and the persistence of the economic status quo. There should be tremendous potential for those on the Left to exploit this class divide in rural America between the “rural gentry” and working-class rural residents who have historically been less politically active. The Democratic Party has ignored those potential working-class voters. Bernie Sanders tried to activate them in his campaigns for president with only mixed results. Bowlin argues that earnest attempts at organizing these voters must transcend broad Populist platitudes and attack the issue of consolidation directly while also speaking to local issues. In short, these working-class rural residents need to be taken seriously. Materialist arguments should be persuasive to them, but activists need to meet rural Americans on their terms.
The Democratic Party’s lack of serious interest in appealing to rural Americans has created a vacuum that socialists should fill. 21st century socialists can take cues from the 19th century Populists by emphasizing the roles that common people can play in this movement to democratize our society. A true brand of populism is a movement with egalitarian values that hopes to remake society with common people at the helm. Socialists and populists have those goals in common at least. The growth of populism over the last decade means that plenty of opportunities exist for socialists to make their arguments and win converts.
Ginger, Ray. The Bending Cross. 2007 ed., Chicago, Haymarket Books, 1947.
Kipnis, Ira. The American Socialist Movement, 1897-1912. 2004 ed, Chicago, Haymarket Books, 1952.
O’Connor, Harvey. “Henry Demarest Lloyd: The Prophetic Tradition.” Monthly Review, vol. 6, no. 11, 1955, pp. 408-417. Monthly Review Archives.
Postel, Charles. The Populist Vision. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007.
Stow, Robert, editor. “Conflict in the American Socialist Movement, 1897-1901.” Journal of the Illinois Historical Society, vol. 71, no. 2, 1978, pp. 133-142. JSTOR.
Tuttle, Robert. “The Appeal to Reason and the Failure of the Socialist Party in 1912.” Mid-American Review of Sociology, vol. 8, no. 1, 1983, pp. 51-81. JSTOR.